Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is bringing back several legacy Star Trek characters.
When the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds casting announcement video rolled during last week’s Star Trek Day festivities on Paramount+, fan comments on social media, both those read aloud on the streaming event and those I saw in my own feed, expressed surprise and delight the new series will feature several previously established characters.
Naturally, no one was surprised Anson Mount, Rebecca Romijn, and Ethan Peck would be reprising their roles from season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery as Captain Christopher Pike, Number One, and Mr. Spock, respectively. Fans embraced these actors’ portrayals of these legacy characters. Admiration for Mount’s Pike in particular drove fan demand for this newest Star Trek series.
But while Strange New Worlds’ setting leaves room for seemingly infinite original series character crossovers in seemingly infinite combination, few fans appear to have dreamed the show would include three more established characters in its main cast—let alone a character whose name signals connections to an iconic Star Trek villain!
Almost a week later, fandom’s still buzzing about this major Strange New Worlds reveal.
But the question remains: Is the new show making the right move, tying itself so tightly to previously established characters?
Why Strange New Worlds can treat “old” Star Trek characters as new again
I think focusing on these legacy characters is a smart move allowing Strange New Worlds to honor the franchise’s past while leaving plenty of room for it to strike out on its own.
While these characters were created in the 1960s, filmed, “canonical” Star Trek has arguably developed them so little, they remain, for all practical intents and purposes, “new.”
Certainly, we know next to nothing about Dr. M’Benga, whom Booker Bradshaw played in only two episodes, “A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives” (in which he had only one scene). Beyond the internship he completed on Vulcan, M’Benga is a blank slate—a notable example of Black representation on 1960s network TV, but hardly a fully fleshed-out character. Babs Olusanmokun should have ample opportunity to make M’Benga as fully realized and three-dimensional as DeForest Kelley made Dr.McCoy.
Fans feel we know M’Benga’s sickbay colleague, Nurse Christine Chapel, better than we actually do, largely because Majel Barrett Roddenberry, “the First Lady of Star Trek,” played her. But Chapel’s character was almost exclusively defined by her relationship with men. The episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” established she joined the Enterprise to search for her missing fiancé, Dr. Roger Korby. And, famously, he carried an unrequited torch for Spock for years (“The Naked Time,” “Amok Time,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “Plato’s Stepchildren”).
Although she (presumably) would have served the refit Enterprise as CMO under Captain Decker, Dr. McCoy announces his need for “a top nurse, not a doctor who’ll argue every little diagnosis” when he returns in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hopefully, Strange New Worlds will give Jess Bush the chance to shape Chapel into a woman professional who is no longer fully equated with whom she’s in love with or assists in surgery.
“Ah, but what about Uhura?” you might ask. “Surely we know her!”
I honor the elegant, talented Nichelle Nichols. She created a character who has entertained and inspired generations of Star Trek fans. Uhura’s importance as a Black professional role model in 1960s prime time TV was lost on neither a young Whoopi Goldberg nor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The prominent role Zoe Saldana’s Uhura plays in the Kelvin Timeline Star Trek films is a tribute to what Nichols did with the role. Over the decades, Nichols ultimately made Uhura about so much more than opening and closing hailing frequencies.
But honoring Nichelle Nichols as the trailblazer she is doesn’t mean pretending Uhura was as developed a character as she could and should have been. Nichols made the most of what Star Trek’s writers gave her—but, as Star Trek (2009) reminds us, they never even gave her a first name!
How did Uhura become the woman she is? Why did she join Starfleet? Besides singing (and beautiful singing it is), what does she do off-duty? What are her goals and ambitions beyond the Enterprise? (The Memory Alpha wiki cites licensed fiction depicting her as a captain, an admiral, and Federation president!) Nichols brought intelligence, wit, warmth, and on occasion, even smoldering sexuality to her role, and Celia Rose Gooding will bring her own qualities to the younger version of Uhura she will be playing.
As for Strange New Worlds’ new character with apparent ties to a classic baddie: La’an Noonien-Singh’s exact relationship to Khan, the genetically engineered tyrant, remains to be seen. But Christina Chong has the chance to develop a compelling character who also answers long-burning questions about the history of the Star Trek universe.
Using legacy characters doesn’t mean Strange New Worlds is relying on the franchise’s past as a crutch. Handled well, these characters have every potential to feel as fresh and unknown as the planets the Enterprise visits. Given time, these versions of Uhura, Chapel, and M’Benga—not to mention the newest Noonien-Singh—should be as familiar and welcome to us as their forerunners.